A Sort of Zucchini Frittata

Things are winding down in the Fort kitchen garden, after a pretty good growing season. The climbing beans (Signora della Campagna) are still up and running, and the autumn/winter salads are looking good. Best of all, this has been a happy year for tomatoes, about which more anon when I have collated my tasting notes. However, it is of zucchini that I want to sing just now.

P1000287In spite of perpetual optimism and considerable experimentation, I keep coming back to a distinctively mottled, heavily ridged, variety called Romanesco. These may not be the heaviest croppers in the world (who wants a zucchini glut anyway?) but in my experience, they have the most marked flavour – a lively, sweet freshness with a meaty, marrow-y bong – but also will keep a firm texture when cooked.

However, this recipe doesn’t make real use of that characteristic, although it does show off the flavour. It’s a dish that can be made as a light lunch on its own, or to sit companionably along side a bit of chicken, rabbit or fish. The secret is in the breadcrumbs, which gives it a lightness as well as substance missing from more conventional frittatas. It’s an idea I nicked from the immortal Honey from the Weed by Patience Gray

Per person

½ small onion
1 small-medium zucchini
1 garlic clove
1 egg
1 tbsp bread crumbs
salt & pepper
olive oil

Chop the onion as finely as you can manage. Splash a little olive oil into a frying pan, and gently cook the onion in it until transparent. Grate the zucchini on a fine grater (eg the size you’d use for grating Parmesan ). This is one of the few occasions I wouldn’t use a micro-planer. Grate the garlic. Transfer both into a bowl. Add the breadcrumbs and mix well. Add the fried onion and mix again. Season. Add the egg(s) and beat together. Splash a little more oil into the pan and heat until it goes all mazy. Give the frittata mix a final stir and pour into the hottish oil. Fry very gently until the base has set firmly. Turn out onto a plate. Flip over and repeat the process. Eat and feel virtuous.
photo

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Noma

Rene - NomaThere was the great man, Rene Redzepi, standing at the door of Noma, surrounded by what appeared to be a battalion of Noma staff.

‘We’ve met before’, I said, grasping him firmly by the mitt.

‘I know,’ he said.’ You bought me a pint.’

I goggled. And then I remembered.

Some years I interviewed Rene Redzepi for Market Kitchen, a TV series I was doing back then. He had come over for the 50 Best Restaurant Awards for the first time. I hadn’t a clue who he was, but Noma was tipped at the fastest rising newcomer that year. That part I knew. What I had forgotten, until he reminded me, was that after an agreeable natter for the cameras, I asked him what he was up to before the ceremonial gubbins started. There was an hour or so before the gastronomic great and good would start gathering for the evening’s f&g (fun & games).

‘Nothing’, he said.

Here, I thought, was a stranger in a strange land, without a friend in sight.

‘Let me buy you a pint at the pub across the road’, I said.

‘Ok,’ he said, and so we slipped into the Great Queen Street in Great Queen Street for a couple of pints.

And that was, oo, seven years ago now, and pretty much ten years since Noma opened its doors.

I’ve never been one for dashing to restaurants within a few days, or even weeks, of opening. I prefer to slip into a place when it’s had time to settle down and sort itself out, and then to eat and consider at leisure, unprompted by feeding frenzies and madcap media activity. Lazy? Well, maybe. Lazy like a fox I like to think. I think you get a better idea of the true potential of a chef and his team this way. Even so, ten years is quite a long settling-in period, even by my standards, but that’s how long it’d taken me to get to there.

There’s precious little external brouhaha to attract the eye, either. Noma is housed in a handsome, restrained, grey stone building down by the docks, and The interior, too, has a well-designed austerity, respecting the 19th century beams and cream colouring. It’s a clever combination of ancient and modern, each informing the other.

The greeting from Mr Redzepi, and indeed, what appeared to be the whole Noma brigade, set the course for one of the many joys of the evening – the fluency and friendliness of the service, largely carried out by the cooking staff in relays. These turn out to be a) extraordinarily youthful (at least they appeared that way to me); b) international in background – Americans, English, Japanese, Australians, Guatemalans, all sorts; and c) heavily tattooed. They were, without exception, charming and eloquent in explaining the qualities of each dish. I don’t suppose they were often quizzed about the forensic detail as they were by Anders Schonnemann, a prince among men and photographers, and myself, but they responded with good humour and great knowledge.

Of course, this doubling up of cooks as waiters has been remarked on before, but the effect is to diminish the gap between the kitchen and the customer, who, more normally, occupy as different worlds as Earth and Pluto. This is all part of the Noma culture, which is determinedly democratic, decent and remarkably undemonstrative.

Anders and I ate 12 small dishes, 7 more substantial ones and 2 puddings. We drank 9 wines, all organic, biodynamic or natural, through which Mads Kleppe guided us with forensic knowledge and mad-eyed passion. I haven’t a clue what the bill was because the saintly Anders paid, but I imagine it wasn’t small.

In a conceptual sense, I’m not sure Rene Redzepi and his team are doing anything that the likes of Marc Veyrat, Michel Bras and Edouard Loubet weren’t doing in France a dozen or so years ago. They were also foraging for forgotten or ignored herbs, fruits, vegetables, roots and berries in their regions to create new culinary accents and gastronomic emphases within the traditions of French haute cuisine.

However, what is radical, refreshing, even shocking, and, above all, delightful about Noma, is not simply the way it has dispensed with the ritualistic trappings of French fine dining, but also the way in which the Noma dishes extend a chef’s accepted palette and palate. Varying notes of acidity ring like chimes of a glass harmonica. There are touches of bracing astringency, the snap of bitterness, the salt and yeast tang that comes from fermentation, acridity of smoke. Pine needles, juniper, sorrels of different hues, rhubarb, fermented pears, nasturtium leaves and lingon berries are all deployed around other vegetables, fruits, fish or meat to provide defining contrasts. Redzepi has a playful way of combining textures, too – moss and ceps; berry with rose petals; leek with cods’ roe; meaty turbot with fleshy sea vegetables.

The play of sharp notes continues through what might be thought to be quiet, docile ingredients. Even butters and creams have a distinctive lactic, even cheesy, tang that offsets their smoother, more voluptuous textures. These small details set up the rhythms within each dish, and between each dish.

While the range of raw materials and techniques embrace the arcane and the unusual, the kitchen is not a slave to technology and novelty. The turbot, a magnificent piece of fish, was simply roasted and basted in butter, which added a voluptuous, nutty richness to its natural savour, offset by the fleshy, saline beach cabbage. I’m not sure how the lobster was cooked, but it was a marvel of freshness, precision and simplicity, sweet and firm, overlaid with peppery nasturtium leaves as a kind of seasoning. A rib of beef, which had been ‘cured’ in clarified butter before being cooked long and slow in a water bath, had a rich, almost decaying note, counterbalanced by sharp lingon berries.

As far as I was concerned, some dishes (peas, pine and chamomile; caramelized milk and cod liver; Skagen shrimps and ramsons, rhubarb root and flowers; lobster and nasturtium leaves; potato and caviar; roasted turbot and beach cabbage; beef rib and lingon berries) were illuminatingly brilliant, while others (Nordic coconut; cheese cookie, rocket and stems; pickled and smoked quails egg; leek and cods roe; white and green asparagus, cream and pine) didn’t quite achieve the same pleasure-provoking inspiration. Out of so many dishes, not all are going to appeal to the same degree. In fact, a meal would be almost unbearable if they did. But there was no mistaking the marvellous clarity and lightness of touch, or the way the essence of each dish was defined.

Was Noma the Best Restaurant in the World? (It was knocked off the top slot in 2013) Of course, it’s a nonsense (but marketing genius) to say there is such a thing, and I’m not going to get into that kind of futile league table. It’s like arguing that Leonardo da Vinci was a greater artist that Michelangelo, Vladimir Horowitz was a finer keyboard titan than Sergei Rachmaninov or Lionel Messi is a more accomplished footballer than Pele was. There is room in the world for them all.

All I can say is that every dish and every part of the Noma operation showed a brilliant and distinctive sense of personality, an individual vision of what food and eating can be. It gave me new experiences and opened up different gastronomic horizons. Most off all, best of all, it was huge fun. Well worth the wait, in fact.

19.5/20

Noma,
Strandgade 93,
1401 Copenhagen K,
Denmark
Tel: 00 45 32 96 32 97

NB. The magnificent, brooding portrait of Rene Redzepi was taken by Anders Schnonnemann.

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Grovelling Fort

I have been shamefully neglectful of my blog in recent months, and I can only apologise for those who have faithfully logged on, hoping for some fresh apercus on the shining universe of food.

And I must begin with a second apology, to Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent and Michael Gove, the Minister of Education. In an earlier blog (Gormless Gove) I questioned the need and the motives behind the commissioning of yet another report into the dire state of food in our schools. I suggested that we all knew what was wrong. There had been plenty of earlier reports saying much the same things, and what was needed was action.

I still feel that I was accurate in some of my assessment. Where I was wrong was in underestimating the three men, and in criticising their competence, purpose and determination. First of all the report, The School Food Plan, was a first class piece of work, crisp in its analysis and crisp in its recommendations. My friend, Joanna Blythman, wrote to me that ‘It seemed to me that there were a few new ideas in it e.g. universal free school meals for primary kids, and they do seem to have convinced government about cookery lessons.’

It’s all very well making recommendations. Anyone can make recommendations. It’s quite another to locate the political vision, will, determination and, above all, money to make them a reality.

Here, again, I was wrong. First of all cooking is to be made compulsory for children up to year 9 in the new National Curriculum, with a view to ‘instilling a love of cooking in children’. And then came the announcement by Nick Clegg on 17th September that the government was going to fund free school meal for all children Reception to Year 2. Well, blow me down. You could have knocked me over with a feather. Here is the Dimbleby/Vincent plan in action, and in short order, too.

The importance of these commitments to the future of kids in this country cannot be overestimated. For the first time food and cooking will play a central role in their education, and therefore their lives. They will give them the tools to challenge the prevailing domestic apathy regarding the pleasure and value of cooking good food from scratch. They may even begin the long, slow process of reversing the trend towards obesity and diet –related problems among children.

I would say that this is a fine beginning, and I would be happier if free school meals were made compulsory. There is still a long way to go. However, I touch my forelock to Messers Dimbleby, Vincent and Grove. I misjudged them.

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Savour Flavour

‘And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?’

How indeed. Proust and his Madeleine: the most famous food moment in literature, when food, flavour and memory fuse together. We all know of it, refer to it, but how many of us have actually read it, and remarked how carefully Proust charts with precise minutiae the psychological and physiological processes that marked the mouthful of food Swann took?

It’s all there, the moment of taste, the thrill of flavour, the sequence of sensations triggered by a mere mouthful. The same things happen to us each time we eat. Ok, that may be something of an exaggeration. Most of the time we’re too busy or too preoccupied (or too self-conscious?) to give each mouthful that kind of exact attention. And yet we all have had those Proustian moments, when we can recall with nostalgic intensity the flavours of something we ate twenty, thirty, forty years ago.

And yet, what is ‘flavour’? Is it merely a philosophical concept? Or does it have physiological manifestations? Is flavour the same as taste? If not, how does flavour different from taste? How does flavour work? Do our brains register ‘flavours’ if so how? What are the mechanics of flavour” Or could flavour possibly be an amalgam of all the above? Now there’s a thought.

‘Food & Cooking -An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture’ by Harold McGee is one of the few imperative books on food ever published. In it he says ‘The overall flavour fruit and vegetable is a composite of several distinct sensations’. He lists those sensations in the mouth and one the tongue, and then explains how the process of chewing releases hundreds of thousands of volatile chemicals that rise up the nasal passages to the olfactory bulb which sorts them out into some kind of order as flavours. Flavour, says Harold McGee is ‘part taste, mostly smell’.

I once shared a long car trip with Harold McGee. He was the most enchanting and illuminating of companions. In the course of the journey, he outlined the theory and practice of taste and flavour, and went on to describe how the olfactory bulb passed on the information to neural pathways, which in turn communicated with different parts of the brain and that allowed to sort out flavours and express ourselves on them. He made it sound all so logical and sensible that I could understand it. Then he spoiled it all by saying ‘Of course, the latest research suggests that it might be the other way round.’ Flavour, you might say is an on-going project.

NB. This blog first appeared as one of a series in Flavour First – http://www.flavourfirst.org/

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Sweet reason

photoWhen it comes to coffee, I am something of a purist. I am a man for a single espresso. I’d rather drink two single espressos than a double. I’m also happy with a ristretto, but only in Naples, and preferably accompanied by a sfogliatella from Scatturchio. At a pinch I will drink a cappuccino, but really only enjoy them in the Tazza d’Oro in Rome, one of the few places that understand the precise texture of foam on a cappuccino (which should be just firm enough to hold your sugar before letting it slide into the coffee beneath). Macchiatos, flat whites, lattes, americanos and all the other bizarrerie of modern coffee culture I leave to others.

With rare exceptions, I always add sugar to my coffee. Unsweetened black coffee tends to be dominated by acidic and metallic notes. Just a touch of sugar rounds out the flavour, drawing out the fuller, more chocolaty notes.

Now comes the really vexing point. Sugar lumps. God, how I hate sugar lumps with coffee. It is astonishing how many restaurants, even some highly rated Italian restaurants in London, serve up sugar lumps with their coffee. Particularly odious are those white and brown Perruche lumps. You know they’re only doing this for aesthetic reasons, not because they are suitable for coffee.

If you give it a moment’s thought, you’ll know that, by the time the sugar lump has melted sufficiently to sweeten the coffee, the drink, itself, will be stone cold. It’s so bloody obvious. If you sweeten your coffee, use caster sugar. It melts right away, and you can drink your coffee hot.

PS. I will confess to a weakness for sugar crystals, which my parents were fond of. We were allowed to spoon up the semi-melted crystals from their cups, when they had finished drinking their coffee. It had a satisfying butterscotch sweetness and crunched in a very agreeable way.

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Brasserie Chavot

photoSuddenly they’re everywhere. After years of rigorous suppression in favour of Italian/Spanish/Modern European/Contemporary British/Ersatz Japanese-effect pastiches, French brasseries and bistros (or is it bistrots?) are back in force. In the last fewish months the Brasserie Zedel and Cafe Colbert, Balthazar and Little Pollen Street have all opened and been packing in the customers. Most, I suspect, are drawn by ancestral, tribal memories of what French cooking used to be and is no longer, marking the cultural gastronomic tides that move quietly beneath the froth of contemporary hype and hyperbole.

And now there’s the Brasserie Chavot.

Eric Chavot is a pretty well-traveled chef – Le Manoir aux Qua Saisons, Harvey’s, The Restaurant, Chez Nico, Capital Hotel, America, Pierre Koffman’s pop-at Selfridges. He has tried a couple of solo efforts before, too – Interlude de Chavot and Chavot in the Fulham Road, These testify to his restlessness and to his talent. For the sake of the eating public, at last I hope he found the place to settle for years to come.

The Brasserie Chavot fills a wing of the Westbury Hotel, and fills it with something approaching fin de siècle (the fin of the 19th century that is) splendour: marble, mosaic flooring crystal chandeliers, mirrors and gilt, red velvet banquette seating. I love that kind of thing. They evoke happy memories, a sense of comfort verging on luxury, provide a reassurance that everything is going to be all right after all.

And all right it is. A brasserie the place may be, but it is Eric Chavot’s brasserie. The menu may be packed with old favourites – oysters with crepinette; steak tartare; choucroute; canette a l’orange; cod with lentils; daube de boeuf – but somehow M. Chavot imbues them with an individuality that year surpasses the staid originals. In most cases, he achieves this by cooking these dishes with a precision and technical brilliance that raises them to the standard of haute cuisine. Somewhat disingenuously, he says that he is only cooking the dishes that his old mother cooked. All I can say is that, if Mme Chavot cooked as well as this, I am very sorry I never got to sit at her table.

To be strictly truthful, the first time I ate the canette a l’orange, I found the duck part on the disappointing side. That was largely due to the fierce vividness of the a l’orange part. It was intense, balanced, profound, silky, penetrating and elegant, a cracker in anyone’s language. When I ate the dish a week or so later, the problem of the duck breast had been solved. It was a duck breast of inspired duckyness, a duck breast suitable to carry to fill majesty of that sauce.

The carpaccio of venison with pickled mushrooms that preceded it showed another side of M.Chavot’s kitchen personality. It was refined, graceful, and delicate, the gentle, ruminative quality of the deer lifted and heightened by the sharp punctuation marks of the mushrooms. The steak tartare which preceded that was another wonderful example of M. Chavot’s ability to re-invigorate a classic. Tiny cubes of meat were bound loosely in a mayonnaise souped up with tiny chunks of cornichons, capers, French mustard, Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco. It was meaty, creamy, sharp and warm by turns.

Puddings show no slackening of standards. I could comment that the baba au rhum and coupe liegoise erred on the generous side, but that seems ungenerous on my part, and the Brsserie Chavot is the kind of place that encourages bigheartedness.

It’s still in its early days, and some things may change. The menu may broaden its scope. However, already the Brasserie Chavot shows an enviable maturity and confidence. The service is easy, charming and efficient. The food comes at a nicely judged pace. The wine list, and wine advisors, have a disarming personality. It would seem that Eric Chavot has put the lessons of all those travels to very good use indeed.

17/20

Brasserie Chavot,
41 Conduit Street,
London W1
Tel:020 7078 9577

http://brasseriechavot.com/

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Taste Test

I’ve been contributing a column about taste and flavour to an admirable new on-line magazine called Flavour First (see http://www.flavourfirst.org). I thought I would recycle them in this blog just in case some faithful followers might have missed them.

At the Fat Duck, they used to serve a little nibble to kick off any meal. It consisted of a rectangular tablet. One side was orange and the other deep purple. One side was orange jelly and the other beetroot jelly, the solicitous waiter would explain, adding ‘I suggest you start with the orange.’ This being the Fat Duck, the orange jelly turned out to be beetroot, being made with yellow beetroot, and the purple side taste of orange, being made with blood oranges.

It was a classic case of misdirection, and produced a palpable sense of shock, just as you experience when you pick up a glass of water swig it and discover it’s really vodka, or, even worse, the other way round. Our relationship with taste and flavour starts long before we actually do any eating. It begins when we smell food and/or see it. At that moment our brains whirr into gear, setting up a series of responses and expectations.

Only after that come the responses when we actually put the stuff into our mouths. We push it around with out tongues, assessing texture chew on it a few times, releasing its juices, and that’s when we ‘taste’ things.

In easier, simpler days there used to be just four tastes – sweet, sour, salty, bitter. Then they were joined by a fifth, umami, natural MSG, best described as a savory facilitator for other tastes. We had known about it since being identified by Kikunae Ikeda in 1908, but Western experts remain skeptical about its existence and importance until 2001 when Prof Charles Zuker proved that we had taste receptors specifically for umami.

Taste receptors – there’s another area of debate and changing knowledge. I can remember the days when it was thought we only had about 300 receptors, and it was generally accepted that these were located on the tongue, around the mouth, and in the throat. At the last count it turned out that there are over 2000 to 5000 taste receptors (scientists is always revising the number upwards) dotted all over the place, including in our tummies, gut and pancreas.

It was also once thought that each receptor has specific functions in relation to the five basic tastes, i.e. 1:1. Now It seems that taste receptors are rather more promiscuous than we previously thought, in that predominantly bitter receptors, let’s say, also register degrees of sweetness, and ditto salt receptors for bitterness and so on. And if that weren’t confusing enough, taste receptors vary from person to person, and aren’t all switched on all the time. There are specific taste hotspots in the brain, too, which respond to specific tastes.

Once upon time, everything was so clear. We tasted tastes in our mouths and while our olfactory bulbs sorted out the flavours. Now no one seems able to decide where taste ends and flavour starts. As far as I can make out, most authorities treat them as if they merge one into the other.

But, but, but, it seems to me that there’s still some kind of separation. If you don’t believe me, try the old squeeze-the-nose test. Eat a pear squeezing your nose, and you’ll be hard put to tell whether it’s an apple or a pear. Then unsqueeze your nose, and the pear flavour will fill your head. But if you chew a lemon squeezing your nose, you can tell it’s a lemon by its acidity, because acidity is a taste. All clear now? Mmmm.

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